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Is Your Pan Smoking With Nothing In It?

Are you puzzled by the plume of smoke rising from your empty pan? Let’s crack this sizzling mystery wide open.

You know that weird situation when you see smoke coming from an empty pan? We’ve all been there, scratching our heads, wondering, “What the heck’s going on? Why is my frying pan smoking when there’s nothing cooking?”

Good thing you’re here because this is exactly what we’re going to talk about in this article—and I think you’ll be interested in knowing the answer. So stay with me and let’s talk about what’s causing it.

Why Your Frying Pan Is Smoking

Well, what gives?

Why is your frying pan smoking?

The answer to this question depends on the type of frying pan we’re talking about. For instance, there’s a significant difference in why non-stick frying pans smoke versus why cast iron skillets and carbon steel pans smoke.

Non-Stick Frying Pans

Non-stick frying pans, which are sometimes referred to as PTFE pans, can safely handle temperatures up to 450 to 500°F (230 to 260°C), depending on the quality of the coating. If heated beyond this temperature, the PTFE releases toxic fumes, which can cause polymer fume fever, and the coating can get permanently damaged.

If you notice your non-stick frying pan smoking and giving off a plastic smell while you’re preheating it empty, immediately turn off the stove, set the kitchen range hood to its highest setting, open the windows, and leave the room for at least 30 minutes.

Breathing in the fumes is unsafe and can make you feel dizzy or even cause illness.

Cast Iron and Carbon Steel Skillets

The reasons why cast iron skillets and carbon steel pans smoke are not as worrisome.

Cast iron and carbon steel pans have excellent heat retention, which means they are really good at keeping heat. This is why they can get really hot, especially when you preheat them empty and use medium-high or high heat.

These pans are made of bare metal and require seasoning, a thin layer of cooking oil that’s baked onto the surface to prevent rust and corrosion. When heated, the seasoning can start to smoke, which usually means that the pan is a little hotter than you really need it to be.

As time goes on, these pans accumulate grease on their walls. The grease may not be as visible on cast iron, but is more noticeable on a carbon steel pan. Like with the seasoning, when this grease is heated to a certain temperature, it starts to smoke—even if there isn’t any food in the pan.

How to Preheat a Frying Pan

Cookbook authors and celebrity chefs rarely, if ever, provide detailed instructions on preheating our pans. And yet, mastering this subtle skill can help you take your home-cooked meals to a whole new level and make your cookware last longer.

Preheating a Non-Stick Pan

Non-stick pans are typically made of an aluminum body with a steel base to ensure even heating. They have about three layers of sprayed-on polytetrafluoroethylene, also known as PTFE, that makes the cooking surface slick and slippery.

The thing with these pans is that aluminum, being a great heat conductor, heats up very quickly. As a result, it’s important not to leave them on the burner empty for too long, or they will overheat and potentially fill your kitchen with toxic fumes.

To preheat a non-stick frying pan, place it on the burner and add about a tablespoon of butter or cooking oil. Set the heat to medium and let it heat up for about 20 to 30 seconds. Then, you can add your food to the pan.

Preheating a Cast Iron or Carbon Steel Skillet

You don’t have to worry about your cast iron or carbon steel skillet releasing toxic fumes because it doesn’t have a coating the way non-stick pans do.

However, overheating these thick and heavy pans can damage the seasoning and result in food sticking to the surface. And let’s not forget that when a pan is overheated, it can burn the outside of the food while leaving the inside undercooked—so you still want to preheat it properly.

To preheat your cast iron or carbon steel skillet, put it on the burner and add butter or oil. Set the heat to medium and allow it to heat up for around 2 to 3 minutes. Remember, these metals are not great at conducting heat, so they take a bit longer to get hot. But once they do reach the desired temperature, they retain heat exceptionally well and allow you to get the most perfect sear on your food.

What About Stainless Steel?

Some of you might be thinking, “This is all fine, Dim, but I use a stainless steel pan! So what does it mean if my stainless steel pan smokes when I heat it empty?”

Well, if your stainless steel pan is smoking while you’re preheating it, it’s most probably because there is still some water in the pan from rinsing or residue from previous cooking. Unlike non-stick pans or seasoned pans, stainless steel pans don’t have a coating or seasoning, so they won’t produce smoke as long as they are sparking clean.

And if there’s oil in your skillet and it starts to smoke, it means the oil has exceeded its smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil breaks down and starts to burn instead of just shimmering and moving around in your pan in ripples. To prevent your food from tasting bitter and avoid burning it, you should reduce the heat before you start cooking.

Tying It All Together

When your empty pan starts smoking like a chimney, it’s not out to get you—it’s just trying to communicate.

It’s either saying, “Hey, I’m overheated and there’s a risk of toxic fumes” in the case of non-stick pans, or “Hmm, maybe you’ve got me a bit too hot there, pal” when it comes to your cast iron or carbon steel skillets. For stainless steel pans, it might just be complaining about leftover water or oil residue… or that it’s just too hot.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.